Life & Culture

Hunting communists? They were really after Jews

In his new book, JC columnist Michael Freedland argues that the Hollywood trials held by the House Un-American Activities Committee were antisemitic. He explains why.


It was a milestone in Hollywood history — actors, writers, producers blacklisted for their political beliefs. Sixty years ago, men and women, some of them with flourishing careers, were made to answer the question: “Are you now, or have you ever been, a communist?”

The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), anticipating the “investigations” of Senator Joseph McCarthy shortly afterwards, chose Hollywood for the start of its onslaught against communism. At least, that is what they said they were doing. But any investigation into the investigations, to coin a phrase, reveals it was something else. For “communist”, read “Jew”.

The hearings that took place in Los Angeles and in Washington between 1947 and the mid-’50s were as much (some would say more) antisemitic as anti-Communist. Hollywood was chosen for the attack because of the great publicity value the movie capital offered. It was also a great opportunity to get at the Jews of Hollywood. One after the other, the people called to give evidence to HUAC (in effect, put on trial by the committee) were Jews — not exclusively so, but enough to make the case.

On the floor of the House of Representatives itself, Congressman John Rankin made a speech which consisted of virtually nothing more than a list of Jewish names. The wife of the actor Melvin Douglas, Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas — whom a certain HUAC member named Richard Milhous Nixon had insulted by saying she was “pink, down to her underwear” — asked which films the committee really believed were helping the Communist Party. Rankin answered by reading some of the names that had appeared on a petition to congress: “One is Danny Kaye,” he began. “We found his real name was David Daniel Kaminsky. Then there was Eddie Cantor. His real name was Edward (sic) Iskowitz. Edward G Robinson, his name is Emmanuel Goldenberg.” The final cut was when he added, almost as an afterthought, the name of the congresswoman’s husband: “There’s another one here who calls himself Melvyn Douglas, whose real name is Melvyn Hesselberg.”

The musician Larry Adler, a refugee from Hollywood after being warned he was about to be put on the blacklist, told me shortly before his death: “What was worse were the letters Rankin wrote. One I saw began, ‘Dear Kike’.”

The petition Rankin mentioned was in support of the so-called Hollywood Ten, most of whom were writers, jailed after being denied the opportunity of making a statement in their defence. They were unable to claim either the First Amendment, guaranteeing freedom of speech, or the Fifth, which said they could not be asked to incriminate themselves. Six of the 10 — John Howard Lawson, Alvah Bessie, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Albert Maltz and Samuel Ornitz — were Jews.

Their appeal to the Supreme Court was rejected. The original chairman of HUAC, Martin Dies, had invoked the 1918 Sedition Act, which declared that anyone who was foreign-born (even if subsequently naturalised) could be declared a “non-citizen” — because “there are too many Jews in Hollywood”.

The most important Jews in Hollywood were, of course, the studio bosses — people like the Warner Brothers, Louis B Mayer of MGM, and Harry Cohn of Columbia. They were among those responsible for the Waldorf Declaration — a statement issued after a gathering at the New York hotel which declared that they would never employ a communist. The only one who would not sign was Samuel Goldwyn (born Shmuel Gelbfisch), who said that nobody was going to tell him how to run his operation.

The signatories were cowards. They were scared that if they did not come out in support of HUAC , they themselves would be condemned as communists, resulting in the collapse of their businesses. Once on the blacklist, actors could not get parts, writers could not submit scripts, directors could not get work.
Writers, however, did learn how to use “fronts” (Woody Allen made a film using blacklisted actors and writers — nearly all of them Jewish — called The Front, about a writer getting a restaurant cashier to submit scripts in his name). Actors had many more difficulties. No one could prove that Edward G Robinson was a communist, but he had a reputation for being left-wing. So this superstar was put on a “grey list”. Warners would not give him more than a few subsidiary roles in “B” pictures and ordered an article to be published under his name, called “The Reds Made A Sucker of Me”.

He was luckier than many. The tough guy actor John Garfield (originally Jules Garfinkle) died from a heart attack at the age of 39 on the eve of being called before HUAC. The blacklisted star of the hit radio and TV series The Goldbergs, Philip Loeb, booked himself into an hotel, ordered champagne from room service and then jumped from the skyscraper building window. It was a scene recalled in The Front by Zero Mostel, another blacklist victim. One scene in the film was taken from Mostel’s own story. Walter Bernstein, the blacklistee who wrote the film, told me about the actor, whose busy life had previously included cabaret appearances at Jewish resort hotels in the Catskill mountains. Mostel was out of work. “I took him up to the Concord, where he had been used to getting $2,000 a night,” said Bernstein. “Now he was only to get $500. His rate was then cut even more. There were 2,000 people there. They loved it. He cursed them in Yiddish and the more he cursed them the more they liked it.”

Several Jewish actors and directors came to live in London — like Carl Foreman who had the indignity of seeing his script for the film Bridge on the River Kwai win an Oscar but awarded to the French writer Pierre Boulle instead. Larry Adler’s score for the movie Genevieve was nominated for an Academy Award — in the name of the musical director Muir Mathieson. “I was pleased to see that it didn’t win,” he told me.

A leading Broadway actor, J Edward Bromberg came to Britain, too, after being blacklisted — and died of a heart attack. The Jewish actress Lee Grant was blacklisted for speaking at a memorial service for Bromberg. She was told she could get off the list if she named her husband as a communist. She refused — and did not work for 12 years. Bromberg “died of a broken heart”, the Israeli-born actor Theodore Bikel told me. “He was a victim of those antisemites, those fascists.”

The blacklist lasted for those 12 years, but ended because of Jews, too. Kirk Douglas (Issur Danielovich) with Spartacus, and Otto Preminger, who was directing Exodus, insisted that the writer of both films, the Hollywood Ten member Dalton Trumbo, should use his real name, not a nom de plume. “I have been working for Hollywood for 60 years, made 85 pictures,” said Douglas. “The thing I am most proud of is breaking the blacklist.”

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